Mayra Hidalgo Salazar was born in Costa Rica, but the only country she has ever known is America. Her parents brought her to the United States when she was only 6 months old.
She grew up in Lakeland, Florida, where she excelled in high school, earned an associate’s degree from Polk State College, and dreamed of bigger and better things. But Mayra was undocumented. She couldn’t work legally. She couldn’t get a driver’s license. She couldn’t apply for in-state tuition or for state student loans and scholarships. She had hit a wall and could go no further.
An ordinary person faced with these difficulties might be tempted to give in to bitterness and frustration. But Mayra is not an ordinary person. Instead, she chose to direct her energy and considerable talents towards helping other immigrants. She co-founded Florida JFON’s Lakeland legal aid clinic and became their first clinic coordinator. She served on the board of United We Dream, the nation’s largest youth-led immigrant organization, and the Florida Immigration Coalition.
Mayra was well on her way to becoming a nationally recognized activist for immigration rights when President Obama announced a dramatic change in federal immigration policy—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed Mayra to receive her work permit in 2013.
Suddenly, all the things that Mayra had dreamed of were within her reach. Determined to finish her education, she applied to prestigious Sarah Lawrence University and received a full scholarship. Currently studying public policy and Spanish language and literature, she plans to continue on to law school and—no surprise to her JFON friends—to eventually work for an immigrant justice organization.
Mayra wrote us recently to share some more stunning news: she is now a U.S. permanent resident. “I continue to experience moments of disbelief at the life I now lead,” she says. “A student at Sarah Lawrence, with my green card, and, God permitting, I will be a U.S. citizen in five more years.”
Many college students plan to spend spring break in the Caribbean or Cancun. Mayra—now that she can leave the United States and know with absolute certainty that she will be able to come back— plans to return to Costa Rica. She yearns to see her grandparents again, to meet her relatives, and to rediscover the land that gave birth to her.
“I have been granted a privilege most from my community have not,” she says. “I am both honored and devastated at this, but am committed to using these wings wisely and joyfully for equality. I will never forget that my existence in the only country I know was criminalized before I could speak. And I will never stop fighting for my community’s right to hug their loved ones and lead a life with dignity.”
Those of us at JFON who have witnessed Mayra both struggle and thrive with her undocumented status over the years now share in her celebration and gratitude. We are absolutely positive that this exceptional young woman is going to accomplish great things, both for her community and for our country.